2022 Samuel Dash Conference on Human Rights: The Role of Lawyers in a Democracy in Crisis
Motivated by the infamous January 6th insurrection and inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt's call to action at home, the Human Rights Institute presented a self-examining conference considering "The Role of Lawyers in a Democracy in Crisis."
Human rights and democracy are inextricably linked. A truly democratic society is one where everyone’s human rights are respected. Democratic principles, like the rule of law, non-discrimination, and universal suffrage, promote and respect human rights. Democratic institutions — an independent judiciary, an unbiased electoral system, and a vibrant civil society — make those principles meaningful in people’s lives.
As Chief Counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee, Sam Dash helped pull our democracy back from the brink of a constitutional crisis during the Nixon administration. We are now 50 years past the Watergate scandal, yet we have much work to do to shore up the foundations of our democracy. Every lawyer and advocate featured in the 2022 Dash Conference plays a vital role in protecting democracy — holding the lines against attacks on democratic institutions and repairing the fault lines of white supremacy and discrimination that weaken democracy’s very foundation.
This year’s conference featured engaging discussions on defending the right to vote and election integrity in the United States, lessons on defending democracy from around the world, and dismantling the foundations of white supremacy.
Panel 1 — Defending the Right to Vote and Election Integrity
The right to vote — a right that is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — is the centerpiece of any democracy. As the Campaign Legal Center states, “Voting should be accessible for all citizens, no matter where they live, the color of their skin or how much money they make. Democracy works best when all citizens can vote without barriers.”
Yet, recent events in our nation’s history reveal the significant vulnerabilities of both the right to vote and the integrity of our elections. In 2021 alone, 19 states enacted 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans, especially minorities and people of color, to vote. The pervasiveness of misinformation and disinformation online threatens to warp our understanding of what’s real and what’s fake. “Dark money,” or funds from groups that do not disclose their donors, is seeping into our political process and threatens to wield outsized influence at all electoral levels and in all branches of government. Perhaps most shocking of all, the insurrection on January 6, 2021, was a violent attempt to overrule the choice made by the American people through what has been called the most secure election in history.
This panel examined the many ways that the right to vote for Americans and election integrity are being challenged. It also elaborated on how lawyers can work to restore faith and confidence in our electoral institutions and our democracy at large. Moderating the conversation, Caroline Fredrickson articulated that “democracy, participation in democracy, and the right to vote are fundamental to human rights.” In response to a question considering what the fundamental framing idea around securing the right to vote should be, Trevor Potter stated that “everyone who is eligible should have an opportunity to vote freely and fairly in a transparent system. Transparency is important because we want faith in the results.” The panel also discussed the perhaps mythical opposition between election integrity and equitable access, and David Levine emphasized that the two ideas are interdependent since “the ideal election system is one that provides the minimum amount of security necessary to ensure the system is secure while making sure it’s accessible” to as many people as possible. The panelists also discussed the philosophical ideas behind the fundamental right to vote and voting as a human right and whether that aligns with the American constitutional framework.
Caroline Fredrickson (moderator), Member of the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States and Distinguished Visitor from Practice; Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice
David Levine, Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy; Advisory Committee Member for the Global Cyber Alliance’s Cybersecurity Toolkit for Elections and The Election Reformers Network
Trevor Potter, Founder and President of Campaign Legal Center; Former Commissioner and Chairman of the United States Federal Election Commission
Watch the panel on defending the right to vote and election integrity below.
Keynote: From Watergate to Insurrection and Beyond: A Film Screening and Discussion
HRI presented a screening of Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History, featuring interviews with the late Sam Dash, Chief Counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. Afterwards, Elisa Massimino and Diann Rust-Tierney led an audience discussion on the parallels between what the United States underwent as a country during the downfall of the Nixon administration and the January 6th insurrection, as well as their impacts on the public perception of democracy.
“Congress will be good if it has leaders. The courts will be good if they’re honest. Democracy will be good if the people are informed. And you won’t have a president who will go off on a whim. Most presidents won’t want to. Most presidents want to serve their people. But you can prevent that only if each of the pieces are in place and working as the Constitution intended them to work.” — Samuel Dash, reflecting on the Watergate scandal and its reverberation on American democracy.
Watch the excerpts from the film and follow up discussion below.
Panel 2 — Defending Democracy: Lessons from Around the World
According to Freedom House, 2022 marks the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom and democracy. Authoritarian rule is expanding and autocrats are learning from each other. What can democracy defenders around the world take away from these trends in order to strengthen their arsenal against authoritarian foes?
This panel shared lessons on the experiences of leading human rights advocates from Kenya, Hong Kong, and Hungary in their quest to promote democracy and protect civic space. Drawing on their expertise and insights, panelists shared lessons learned with defenders of democracy in the United States. Maina Kiai expanded on the idea that democracy is fragile no matter where in the world a country sits and warned against conflating “the symbols of democracy with democracy itself” because “people seeking power are seeking power and they’d like to have as much of that power as possible.” He suggested that as a country struggling to recognize its own democratic flaws, the United States could benefit from self-interrogation since all its systems in place that are taken for granted, political and economic, might not be the ones that ensure democratic governance. Dennis W.H. Kwok, discussing the destruction of Hong Kong’s decades-long journey towards democracy in the span of one year warned against complacency: “We are not sufficiently awake as to the events that are happening to see that history is about to repeat itself, and if we don’t do something about it, then the authoritarianism that we see arising from countries like China and Russia will be threatening our very democracy and rule of law.” Finally, Márta Pardavi shared her Hungarian perspective and reminded the audience that “democracy can be undone by completely democratic means. You don’t need an army . . . you can undo your democracy yourself.” Far from giving in to the discouraging situations abroad, the panelists pushed the audience to keep fighting for their democracies and to take every win possible no matter how small: “As lawyers, we need to push back . . . human rights are absolutely universal. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you are.” (Dennis W.H. Kwok).
Elisa Massimino (moderator), Executive Director, Human Rights Institute; 2019-2021 Drinan Chair in Human Rights
Maina Kiai, Kenyan Lawyer and Human Rights Activist; Former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Director of Alliances and Partnerships, Human Rights Watch
Dennis W.H. Kwok, Senior Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School, and Distinguished Scholar, Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service
Márta Pardavi, Co-chair, Hungarian Helsinki Committee
Watch the panel on lessons learned from defending democracy around the world below.
Panel 3 — A More Perfect Union: Dismantling the Foundations of White Supremacy
What are the structural underpinnings of our democracy and how does systemic racism affect the legitimacy and functionality of our democratic institutions?
Freedom House reports that, in recent years, democratic institutions in the United States “have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan pressure on the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, … and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.” While the manifestations of inequality in the United States have reached a crisis point, the sources of this inequality are not new. They are the result of long-standing laws and policies that promote and perpetuate white supremacy in the very same systems that purport to guarantee equality, justice, and liberty for all.
The future of our democracy depends on a thorough and critical examination of the ways that systemic racism — in our education system, criminal justice system, and political system — erodes the foundations of our democratic system of governance. But more so than that, the future of our democracy depends on a thoughtful and inclusive understanding of the ways that lawyers can work to dismantle structural inequality.
Diann Rust-Tierney introduced this panel as “the last piece of the puzzle” and explained how it would “focus on the unique challenges that white supremacy embodied in our law and culture poses to the American struggle for the protection of democracy.” The panel examined the various ways that systemic racism undermines the legitimacy of our democratic institutions, and provided direction and ideas to lawyers seeking to realize the promise of a more perfect union. Caroline Fredrickson laid out the evidence for how white supremacy is directly embedded in our legal and political systems, explaining how felony disenfranchisement was a direct response to the 15th Amendment and how “[agricultural] exemptions to labor laws were included because Dixiecrats would not vote for labor legislation unless Black people working in Southern fields were excluded.” Wade Henderson spoke about his personal experiences during “America’s apartheid” and the importance of elections and democratic institutions to combat the pervasiveness of white supremacy. He explained how “the political system as it exists excludes a significant number of our population which in turn reinforces white supremacy.” Addressing current and future lawyers, he stated that “your job is to deconstruct this. Your job is to think of countervailing strategies to dismantle the system that is taught.”
Diann Rust-Tierney (moderator), 2021-2022 Drinan Chair in Human Rights; Former Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Caroline Fredrickson, Member of the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States and Distinguished Visitor from Practice; Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice
Wade Henderson, Interim President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Watch the panel on dismantling the foundations of white supremacy below.
The 2022 Samuel Dash Conference was co-sponsored by the Georgetown Students for Democratic Reform and the Global Law Scholars.